Digging deep for nuggets of gold in the quest for open government

The Internet has given us more access than ever to information held by government agencies. But how to find things like restaurant inspections, doctor disciplinary actions, and internal agency audits? Here are some places to start.

Crosscut archive image.

Seattle City Hall

The Internet has given us more access than ever to information held by government agencies. But how to find things like restaurant inspections, doctor disciplinary actions, and internal agency audits? Here are some places to start.

In a new white paper written for the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and The Aspen Institute — on fostering government transparency — authors Jon Gant and Nicol Turner-Lee suggest that community anchor institutions such as libraries, schools, and community colleges, as well as nonprofits, can "accelerate individuals' understanding of what is available" for people seeking public data. Actually getting important and timely information from government sources into the public square is a critical piece of the equation.

As City of Seattle chief information officer Bill Schrier said at last year's OpenGov West Conference at Seattle City Hall, government "must deputize the private sector, nonprofits and academics to distribute data." Call it last-mile delivery. It's still in short supply as the news and information eco-sphere reformulates.

The knowledge gap in civic space, which extends beyond purely government data, is accented by Diane Douglas, executive director of City Club of Seattle, in a deeply-researched analysis, "Seattle: A New Media Case Study," just published by The Pew Project For Excellence In Journalism, and written by ex-Seattle Times Executive Editor Mike Fancher. (Disclosure Moment #1: Fancher is an advisor to a nonprofit I founded, Public Eye Northwest.)

While Douglas rightfully lauds the number and community impact of local news blogs in the Seattle area, she also tells Fancher she's concerned about the growing scarcity of authoritative topic specialists, or beat reporters, in our region's news and information eco-system. She observes: "Clearly some vitally important stories are less likely to be covered. It’s very frightening to think of those gaps and all the more insidious because you don’t know what you don’t know.”

Welcome to Epistemology 101. If a tree falls in the forest but no one sees or hears it fall, or discovers it fallen later, did it really fall? How would we even begin to know? Fancher's piece profiles many of the newer participants in the region's news ecology and discusses legacy media innovations such as The Times' growing cadre of local news partners, which now includes not only category-killer hyper-local blogs but also topic specialists covering the maritime industry, historic Seattle, hiking, biking, beer, and ethnic communities. (Disclosure Moment #2: a site I founded called Public Data Ferret is a Times partner, too).

There's no question legacy media with a robust commitment to the public good can still deal it; witness The Times' recent series of scoops on the Seattle Public Schools contracting oversight, to cite just one example.

But given the permanently and deeply tightened budgets of legacy media, a lot of the public's business inevitably slips through the cracks. With governments at all levels facing deep fiscal challenges, there's a growing need for information and digestible analysis in order to wring the most benefit from public resources. An upside is that governments are more open and evaluative of their work than we often suspect or know.

Let's survey the landscape for some of the sub-rosa news from the open-government realm in Pugetopolis and see what resources can help citizens, bloggers, teachers, librarians, and nonprofits keep the public informed.

  • A city of Seattle ethics commission draft advisory opinion is meant to begin the conversation on how to encourage use of blogs and social media by elected officials while warning them away from politically verboten uses. It comes via the commission's obscure but useful online meeting agenda access page, where each agenda contains links, sometimes including whistleblower investigations and disciplinary proceedings. The online meeting agendas of the state's Public Disclosure Commission yield similar fruits.
  • The Washington State Department of Health issues monthly reports of disciplinary actions against health care workers, and provides a database of related documents and proceedings. It's helpful to know who's had their license indefinitely suspended after testing positive for alcohol and methadone use while on emergency-room duty, or who's facing unprofessional-conduct charges for allegedly rubbing a soiled diaper in the face of an adult-family-home resident. Any provider can be checked for current license status and disciplinary actions including probation or monitoring. But the names of facilities where alleged misdeeds occurred are usually missing; it takes a phone call to find that out, an inconvenience that should be remedied.
  • Reversing an appeals court ruling, the Washington State Supreme Court upholds a Kitsap County trial court's conviction of a Bremerton man for first-degree child rape. The high court found a hole in the defense's claim that the original conviction was invalid because the jury wasn't instructed that the defendant's past history could only be considered in a limited context. This news comes via a State of Washington web page with links to the latest high-court and appeals-court rulings.
  • Through the state's "Reports To The Legislature" online compendium arrives sobering news from the Office of The Superintendent For Public Instruction: that the proportion of students in bilingual programs who successfully transitioned to all-English instruction last school year dropped by 24 percentage points, even as related spending hit a new high.

At the federal level, other resources bring open government back to the local arena. Embedded in each federal department and agency is an Inspector General's office that roots out waste, fraud, and inefficiency, writes it all up and posts it online much like Washington's State Auditor Brian Sonntag.

Some findings resonate here: costly excess space in U.S. postal facilities, including the district covering all of Washington and Idaho; criminal öffender re-entry programs, including one in Washington, which do poorly at measuring and cutting recidivism; and a Washington state public-radio station that misspent grant funds, erred in its financial reporting and record-keeping, and contravened transparency requirements. At the bottom of this federal agency resources page are links to the reports and audits pages of nearly all U.S. Inspectors General.

Assessments of local-government transparency require looking at online meeting agendas. Collectively, dozens of taxing bodies in King, Snohomish, and Pierce counties are modeling voluntary transparency by ensuring that online meeting agendas contain corresponding links.

The inclusion of links to legislation, staff reports, contracts, and consultant reports in online meeting agendas encourages bloggers and online journalists to hone in on hot topics and include original source materials, such as a consultant's report to the Woodinville City Council on the fiscal challenges of redeveloping and marketing a city-owned historic property, or Kenmore's draft contract with a consultant to assess replacing King County Sheriff service with a local police force. Unfortunately, other local bodies take the far clunkier approach of posting agenda document packets in one huge PDF file, often more than 100 pages long, making it unlikely anyone would take the time to examine or utilize key source material.

Some small government bodies responsible for water and sewer systems or flood control don’t even have Web sites through which meeting notices and agendas can be displayed, much less ordinances and contracts. One in Snohomish County, the French Slough Flood Control District, was recently called out in a state audit for dealing no-bid contracts to two companies, each partially owned by one of its three commissioners. The District confirms it has no plans for a website and currently no mechanism for preparing, mailing, or e-mailing meeting agendas to interested parties. The state open-meetings law only requires such bodies to make known the time and place of regular meetings; it doesn't specify how.

In Seattle expectations are higher. Constituents can use city-provided online mapped databases to follow neighborhood data including crimeconstruction and land-use permit applications, and city and community meetings. King County’s restaurant health-inspections database is an invaluable tool. Many more Seattle and King County datasets are online, waiting for software developers to render them useful.

A real-time Metro bus-arrival data app is already a smash hit. Meanwhile, fellows for the innovative public service project Code For America spent last month in Seattle and four other U.S. cities in a whirl of meetings to gain insight on what new “civic apps” they should develop to help governments improve service delivery and control costs.

Promising stuff. But some nuts and bolts are missing. From 2011 forward, Seattle should put online all of its consultant contract performance evaluations — such as this one daylighted by The Seattle Times to accompany a story on the city's troubled Youth Violence Prevention Initiative. Taxpayers could learn more about how wisely their money is being spent.

Seattle also needs to adopt an “Open 311” system so citizens can publicly report a range of location-specific repair needs for city infrastructure — and so the city can show progress and priorities in response. Infrastructure needs shouldn’t be sequestered in departmental silos, and citizen suggestions confined to closed communications with the bureaucracy.

The definition of  “open government” needs to be expanded to include “open science.” It should include the published research of our publicly funded universities and public health agencies, findings which often verge on performance assessments of local or regional policy but are too often hidden behind online pay walls of professional and academic publications.

A smidgen of good news here: peer-reviewed and free Web-only journals are beginning to flourish as an alternative. Recent reports co-authored by government or university researchers in Seattle have evaluated and found wanting: financial incentives to cut high-risk drug taking and sexual behaviors; the usefulness of mandatory point-of-sale nutrition information to influence consumer choices at fast-food restaurants; and the hypothesis that graduating more foreign-trained dentists in our dental schools would help increase the availability of providers in underserved regions.

Small-government types might like those findings, but progressives will take cheer from another under-covered "research beat" story: a study published by the Centers for Disease Control. It found that Washington's ban on public indoor smoking actually seems to have increased sales volumes in bars and restaurants — the opposite of what conservatives had insisted would happen if voters approved the measure. The source for all this and more is science.gov, a federal search engine that probes the so-called "Deep Web" for things you'll have a hard time finding via Google.

Of course open government isn't only about research, findings, and online disclosure. Recently I attended a Sunday afternoon community meeting held by Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn at the Southwest Library in West Seattle. In a packed room, several attendees pressed McGinn about recent statements he made that Seattle Police are influenced by racist tendencies. Others aired concerns about streets, parks, and schools.

But translating requests into action by cash-strapped governments depends more and more on a shared understanding of performance measurement — and on leaders making hard choices as a result. The Saul Alinsky paradigm of packing a budget hearing with beneficiaries of this program or that one — still so popular in Seattle — is actually fading into the distance as everyone's ox gets gored.

Data will be king, but can it be translated into Plain English, free of bias?

In addition to knowing more about what we don't know, the recent transparency report to The Knight Foundation stresses making open government a two-way conversation. This would be accomplished partly by convening "citizen idea incubators" on needed public-information and digital initiatives; by reaching out to lower-income and minority communities to tout possibilities such as managing one's own Medicare or Medicaid benefits; and by broadening access to high-speed Internet service at schools, libraries, community colleges, and nonprofits — funded jointly by public and private sources.

Open government isn't something we can simply demand, or leave to intermediaries. As the news and information eco-system continues to evolve, and as the ease of sharing information through social media, video, data visualization, and other tools continues to grow, more and more of us are empowered to hold government accountable. As partners we can help build understanding, better policy, and stronger communities.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors